Works and Days

Works and Days

How to Make Sense of an Incoherent America

February 9th, 2015 - 2:55 pm


The United States can be quite an incoherent place at times. Here are a few examples.


Sometime in the 1990s the growing contradictions of affirmative action in a multiracial society became problematic. Ethnic ancestry was often neither easily identifiable nor readily commensurate with class status, and so gave way to a more popular term: “diversity.”

Under diversity, it no longer mattered so much how wealthy or poor one was. Nor was it a concern exactly who one’s grandparents had been — at long as, in some vague way, one was non-“white.” If so, one was diverse. That was deemed in and of itself a good thing. We no longer worried as much whether someone enjoying affirmative action status was upper middle-class or the child of a surgeon.

Nor did it matter that one was only one-quarter “Latino” or, in fact, took the rarer Elizabeth Warren or Ward Churchill route of fabricating ethnic ancestry out of whole cloth. Those were written off as the bothersome details used by reactionaries to jeopardize the noble objectives of affirmative action.

But with “diversity,” that incoherence supposedly abated, and how one looked or how one spelled or accented or hyphenated one’s last name was about all that was needed for some sort of redress or compensation.

The theory of “disparate impact” became a valuable tool of diversity. If an entire field — Silicon Valley techies, employees at the DMV, or school administrators — did not reflect “diversity” (e.g., was more than about 70% “white”), then whether conscious or not, whether accidental or deliberate, the impact, not the intent, was all that mattered, and was by nature bad. Adjustments — legalized discrimination on the basis of race — followed. At least in theory.

Diversity became also a haphazardly selective idea. Some of the highest-paid and most celebrated jobs in America are found in professional sports. Yet the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and National Basketball Association are increasingly the most un-diverse employers around, at least sort of. The owners are mostly white; the players in the majority mostly not.

On the flip side, college swim teams and the National Hockey League are disproportionally white. What strangely exempts these organization from the charge of “disparate impact” — or the idea that these disequilibria need not be deliberate to have a negative impact?

After all, think of the consequences. There are lots of gifted Asian basketball players and African-American hockey players that might enrich the mosaic of these sports and energize non-traditional audiences. Diversity dictates that ipso facto things improve the more we appear differently. Would not a team of basketball or hockey players reflecting the ethnic make up of the country be more inclusive or at least fairer?

I think we know the answers. Money and more money. Owners are billionaires and professional athletes are multimillionaires. Both are free-market, up-by-your-bootstraps advocates of merit or at least their own privilege. Players believe their hard work and natural ability earn them the right not to be discriminated against by mandating replacements of some of them by others with less proven success, but whose appearance and cultural background would “diversify” both the team and its audience.

Owners agree — and all but imply their business brains and work ethic won their riches and with them the right to own anything they want. Finally, society agrees because sports are its de facto religion in a way that university faculties and the Post Office are not. Would you rather watch the 49ers, or hear a classics professor lecture on enjambment? And so we have few black hockey players and few Latino basketball players because the public, in classically liberal fashion, demands racially blind criteria as the sole adjudicator of participation. Ethnic over- and under-representation are not terms that apply to lucrative sports leagues.

Also note the issues with critical industries that we count on for our safety. Take airline pilots: Al Sharpton is badgering the tech industry to become more diverse, but not the pilots association. Eric Holder will not seriously sue the airlines for “disparate impact,” apparently because passengers demand the assurance that the person in control of 300 lives at 30,000 feet, like an NBA basketball star, has a superior, and identifiably superior, record of achievement. Sports and safety demand that perceived merit trumps diversity. Again, these are the truths we dare not speak, but collectively assume and apparently insist upon.

Women in Danger

Lots of college campuses are in so-called dangerous neighborhoods. East Palo Alto is not far from the Stanford campus. New Haven can still be a perilous place for Yale students. Many of the Cal State campuses are in iffy neighborhoods. Women alone walking to cars or apartments in these environs can often be targeted by criminals.

Why, then, is there not a greater campus awareness campaign about the dangers of the street, or at least more attention to insist that felons and convicted rapists are not released early in college neighborhoods? Instead, more emphases recently have been focused on date rape and other college students. The apparent greater dangers to female students are not violent felons on parole or previous offenders, but campus frats and jocks — even to the point of suggesting that campus rape statistics are astronomically higher than those found among the general population, as if it were more dangerous to go to a USC dorm party than to walk through South Central or Watts.

Why the disconnect? Criminal statistics about rape can be politically incorrect, in that persons of color are statistically on a per capita basis more likely to commit such crimes than so-called whites. For campuses to suggest that a convicted felon of an adjoining inner city is the more likely danger than an arrogant, full-of-himself conservative frat boy is largely an exercise in what the president, in another context, called acting “stupidly” or “stereotyping.”

Warning women of the rough areas in the vicinity means race and class issues turn against the speaker. Warning women of the drunken privileged campus jerk breaks in the speaker’s favor.

Which warning is more likely to keep women secure on campus from bodily harm?

Second, our culture has a tendency to obsesses on what we can influence, and ignore what we cannot: banning a fraternity and bringing wealthy lacrosse players up on campus charges are easily within our power; and it’s easy for Lena Dunham or Rolling Stone to invent crimes of conservative college rapists.

But the pathologies of the inner cities are existential crises apparently beyond our imagination.

It is sort of analogous to central California. Out here, the authorities ignore zoning violations: they ignore 10 people living around a rural farmhouse in Winnebagos with porta-potties, Jerry-rigged Romex wire, and unlicensed and unvaccinated pit bulls wandering into the street, because it is far easier and less politically incorrect to focus on the suburbanite who sneaks in an extra lawn irrigation on a no-watering day. The former invites existential and unsolvable issues; the latter addressable inconsistencies that make the enforcer feel empowered and big rather than inconsequential, impotent, and incorrect.


Last week I saw the following: at the local Save Mart, the person ahead of me was grossly obese and in obvious poor health. She had two piles of quite different sizes on the checkout conveyor belt: one consisted of eggs, milk, bread, and diapers; she paid the small sum with her California WIC card. Her other pile that followed had Cap’n Crunch cereal, bags of Oreos, chips, and lots of regular Pepsi supersize bottles. She paid the far greater tab with three twenty-dollar bills. As I exited, she left in a new Honda Accord, with customized rims. Could she not have passed on the rims and the Oreos, and used the savings to spare the state the cost of her milk subsidy? Does she represent the downtrodden that our legislators insist are not served well by supposedly underfunded state agencies?

But why pick only on the supposed poor?

On the same day, I read a story in the local paper about John Welty, the former president of CSU Fresno. He had worked very hard and successfully at fundraising, and earned his sizable state pension — in addition to a long-contracted year’s “transition” vacation pay of $223,000 to adjust to retirement. Now he is teaching one class at a San Bernardino CSU satellite campus that also entails some administrative duties that together pays $148,752.

His years in the hot seat in the unenviable position as a college president certainly should entitle him to a generous pension whose amount was undisclosed. His apparent administrative excellence may well justify such generous additional post-retirement compensations, given they were long ago contracted before the state’s fiscal meltdown and the across-the-board cutbacks at CSU. He surely has a right to work in his retirement to augment his income, even if it’s for the same state that is paying his pension. All of these are the deserved fruits of a successful administrative tenure that saw the CSUF campus infrastructure and grounds noticeably improve and its private fundraising markedly increase, which resulted in more student scholarships and opportunities.

My worries and yours: the classroom component of his job is not really a class, but is described as a “speaker series,” to coordinate others to talk to students rather than demanding his own prepping, lecturing, and correcting assignments. That is hardly “teaching.”

Two, the campus CSU branch that hired Dr. Welty also has recently hired his wife as dean, who, on his retirement from the Fresno campus, left with him to their new home in the Palm Desert area — and then was rather promptly hired as an administrator at the nearby CSUSB branch campus.

Three, Dr. Welty’s spouse had earlier left CSUF under a cloud of some controversy because her return to recent administrative status consisted of a brief tenure as an interim graduate dean at CSUF, when her husband was campus president — reportedly a result of a quick, in-house search in which there were no other candidates seriously considered.

It is difficult not to conclude that her husband’s administrative team hired her without a normally run search for a well-compensated administrative post; then the administrative team she became a part of had earlier also hired her husband for a post-retirement, well-compensated administrative/”teaching” post. Doing that once may not be nepotism at a local bank, but twice for elite positions at a public university?

As a professor at CSUF — a public university with rules far different from those in the private sector — I conducted seven searches, both for full-time, tenure-track and full-time temporary and fill-in openings. Every search, even for sabbatical replacements, was advertised and open. Each had an assigned affirmative action officer in addition to a committee of three faculty members, both to watch for biases and to adjudicate disproportionate impact. There were careful institutionalized timelines that mandated the process went on for weeks on end. CSU does many things wrong, but its faculty searches are usually transparent and conducted according to protocols, reflecting its status as a public university without the leeway of a private counterpart. Had the university hired someone without a normal search, without advertised announcements, and without an affirmative action officer, I would have been in serious trouble — and from the president mentioned above. The point in both cases was not that laws were violated, but that the appearance breeds cynicism at government when government is already seen as cynical enough.

From the application of diversity remedies to the most efficacious ways of curbing campus sexual violence to the expenditure of state funds, this culture is incoherent.

(Artwork created using a modified image.)

What Are the Metaphysics of Islamic Denial?

February 2nd, 2015 - 12:45 am


After six years, it is no surprise that the Obama administration does not see the Taliban as “terrorists” or that it will not associate “violent extremism” with radical Islam or just Islam.

After all, when Maj. Hasan murdered U.S. soldiers it was nothing more than “workplace violence,” as if he were a disgruntled post office employee of the 1970s. Our two top intelligence chiefs assured us that the Muslim Brotherhood was “largely secular” and that jihad “was a legitimate tenet of Islam.” Add in “workplace violence” and the old “overseas contingency operations.” Do we remember that Ms. Napolitano’s Department of Homeland Security warned us about right-wing returning veterans as the most likely to terrorize us? When someone blows up people at the Boston Marathon, beheads a woman in Oklahoma, or puts a hatchet in a NYPD officer’s head, he is not a terrorist or proselytizer fueled by Islamic hatred of non-Muslims as much as mentally confused. (I suppose in a way that a Hitler or Stalin was not.)

The problem is not that the administration is just too fond of euphemisms. At times it can be quite candid. The Republican House has been characterized as “terrorists” in their efforts to stop more federal borrowing. The Tea Party was slurred as “tea-baggers” — a derogative sexual term.  Mr. Netanyahu is variously a “coward” or “chickensh-t” — pejoratives not floated for even the vicious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

So why the elaborate façade about the Islamic roots of global terrorism and spreading instability in the Middle East? There are a few possible explanations.

I. Strategy

The Obama administration knows full well that the Taliban, ISIS, al Qaeda, Boko Haram and the rest of the pack draw their zeal from the Koran. But to say such might turn off two or three useful constituencies — the hard Left at home that hates any judgmentalism, “moderate” Muslims in the Middle East who are essential to nullifying the “radicals” in their midst, and the global community that is always suspicious when America goes to war against a particular group or ideology. The Obama administration with a wink-and-nod, then, accepts radical Islam as the problem, but for strategic reasons, and in the manner occasionally of the Bush administration, prefers euphemisms. Nonetheless, the administration goes on Predatoring thousands of suspected Islamic terrorists even as it won’t say what its targeted victims all have in common. Given that Americans know that the enemy is radical Islam, why turn off potential allies by reiterating that fact?

II. Appeasement

The Obama administration is terrified of radical Islamic terrorism, in the manner that Europeans are — and were scared stiff in the 1930s of Nazi Germany. They know full well that caricaturing Islam is dangerous in a way joking about other religions is not. They are afraid of more televised beheadings, more torturing, and more Benghazis. If they can blame a pathetic U.S. resident for making a video for the deaths in Benghazi, then perhaps the appreciative Islamist culprits will leave it at one harvest at Benghazi (especially before the 2012 elections). If the Taliban sense that Obama will not dare to call them terrorists, then maybe they will negotiate in good faith and enter a stable “coalition” government when we depart entirely from Afghanistan. Bowing to a Saudi royal might assuage his anger at the U.S. Carefully avoiding reference any longer to Syrian regime change might win back Assad to our side. When we don’t condemn “Islamic terrorism,” then perhaps even ISIS mutters, “Hmmm, these Americans are not that bad after all; shoot rather than behead the next hostage.”

Note that essential characteristic of appeasement, the narcissism of the appeaser: An FDR lecturing Churchill that he alone had the skills to win over “Uncle Joe” Stalin, a Jimmy Carter’s unique understanding of Iranian theocracy that as thanks would release the hostages, and the locus classicus of Neville Chamberlain alone with the fluency and sensitivity to make Herr Hitler see what is in his real interest. So, too, only the Peace Prize winner Obama can suavely appease radical Islam and convince them why leaving America alone suits their interest as well. The more we accommodate radical Islamists through euphemism and circumlocution, the more likely they might just go away.

III. Postmodern Therapy

The Obama administration has a fuzzy therapeutic view of human nature in general, as does much of America by now. There is no “welfare” anymore, just “pubic assistance” or better “health and human services.” Beau Bergdahl is confused and complex, hardly a “traitor,” a slur that leaves no room for nuance. The purpose of language is not disinterested and accurate description; rather, language is employed for the political, whether you know it or not.

So the unwillingness to use the world “Islam” in connection with global terrorism simply reflects the leftwing, relativist view that nothing is ever absolute. There is not good versus evil, failure or success, but only gradations that are conditioned by the preexisting prejudices of elites who make up these categories largely to protect their own privilege. Generalization is always reactionary stereotyping. “Islam” or “Muslim” hardly can characterize 400 million people from Indonesia to Dubai. (To be fair, I think the Left’s postmodern relativism is itself mostly political and ad hoc; after all, it often enjoys blanket categorization and has no problem with disparagement like “Republicans,” “tea-baggers,” “conservatives,” “males,” or “whites” as inclusive terms that serve well enough to stereotype millions — or for that matter “gays” and “women” in the hagiographic sense.) “Islam” and “Muslim” are meaninglessly vague, and are used as pejoratives rather than descriptive terms; like most of our race/class/gender vocabulary these rubrics cannot be used as inclusive terms when the aim is not laudatory.

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Remembering a Few Great Classicists

January 28th, 2015 - 10:31 pm

Temple of Hephaestus in Athens. (Photo by

Few pay much attention to scholars of Latin and Greek. They master languages that are not spoken. They learn to write them only to read them better. They slap your hands when you write a Latin word common in Sallust or Livy, rather than in Cicero.

Classicists learn European languages not so much to appreciate Voltaire or Goethe but to scan dry esoteric articles by 19th-century Frenchmen and Germans on the Athenian banking system or Demosthenes’ use of praeteritio and apophasis.

In our short lives, devoting so much time to philology can result in a life mostly missed. By 21, I could cite passage numbers in Greek texts of what Thucydides and Plutarch thought of Nicias, but not really why exactly Nicias was a mediocre general, the George McClellan or Mark Clark of the Peloponnesian War — the point of reading Thucydides and Plutarch about Nicias in the first place. Classicists can become the proverbial dogs who can dance on two legs, but for what purpose?

Still, I was blessed, if sometimes only for a few hours, by having a few great scholars as teachers who saw their classical educations as the beginning of inquiry, not an end in itself. At 61, I am remembering just how lucky I was to have met them — and how rare their like is now.


I had the British scholar H.D.F. Kitto as an undergraduate while in Athens at a junior year abroad program (College Year in Athens). He taught just six of us in a class on Sophocles’s Ajax with the abbreviated blue Jebb (himself a renaissance 19th century classical scholar) text. I say taught, but he mostly just translated the text for us. Kitto asked a few grammatical questions as he pulled out one of his own rolled cigarettes (his paper always became unwound on his lips) and editorialized about everything in our midst (1973-4 was a year of violence, coups, and revolution in Athens) with context rather than animus (“There is a sort of Corcyra going on here, as is sometimes the custom, ancient and modern, in these environs”).

Kitto seemed to us mostly ignorant Americans not especially a nice man or an empathetic teacher. But he knew a great deal about modern (his little-known travel guide to northern Greece is the best of its genre) and ancient Greece (his best-seller The Greeks is still perhaps the most readable introduction to the ancient world). For that matter, he knew something about almost everything: Shakespeare, Britain in World War II, modern Greek grammar, Churchill’s Mediterranean strategy, birds, Stanley Baldwin versus Neville Chamberlain, the strength and weakness of American GIs (optimism and competency versus naiveté and self-absorption), Scottish military history, the American student’s ignorance of geography, and the value of Xenophon. (He once asked us to translate from the Anabasis “until I say stop,” and then went downstairs for fresh air, and almost forgot about us; I ended up writing for an hour until I noticed he was not coming back and the room was empty).

It was also cold that year in Athens due to a bad winter and the heating oil cutoff from the 1973-4 oil embargo following the Yom Kippur War. Kitto’s arthritis acted up. As he creaked up the six flights of stairs to class, we could hear him mumbling about similarities to cold wartime Scotland. He finally entered the tiny classroom with, “I made it up, not quite dead yet, not yet, no bone for Cerberus today.”

I had nothing in common in with him — and yet everything, at least as much as could a ignorant farm kid from central California, who wanted to absorb dates, names, places, rules, ideas — almost anything — from his vast seven-decade-long repertory. He was a 19th Century practitioner of “parallelism” — in this case, the art of explaining Sophocles’ use of a particular word by citing how it was used elsewhere in Euripides or Plato — or in any other Greek author for that matter (all off the top of his head). In passing, we learned from Kitto meter, grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and yes, by writing Greek, how to appreciate reading it. (“It was not so easy to write in the language of poor Sophocles, as you Americans are now beginning to see”).


By the time I had Michael Grant as a 23-year-old graduate student at Stanford (1976-7), Grant was a sixtyish bon vivant, intimate with Jerry Ford and a visitor to the Annenberg estate, and a visiting professor at American universities. He was sometimes snidely attacked as a “popularizer,” a one-man industry who had made a tiny fortune translating, consulting, lecturing, appraising, and through dozens of books, writing surveys of almost every aspect of the ancient world. Grant was a tall, perfectly dressed aristocrat who looked and sounded the part of a PBS host (black plastic glasses that contrasted with his longish side white hair parted behind his ears).

We were told privately by many of our classics faculty that Grant had “blown it” by transmogrifying from a once solid numismatist (an expert on Roman coinage, cf. From Imperium to Auctoritas) to a “vulgarizer” who sought to sell superficial knowledge of antiquity by generalization and a lack of nuance (i.e., he made a lot more money than classics professors and knew something more about the world beyond the faculty lounge). But I remember differently. For almost any year of the empire, Grant would casually cite regional imperial mints, discoursing on the metallurgical ratios of their output, the iconic nature of their imperial portraits, and the Latin propaganda on the coinage — all as a reflection of current economic, political, and cultural conditions in the Empire.

We found his two seminars on Roman emperors and Tacitus not especially demanding, but fascinating. He spoke beautiful English and each time he referenced Nero or Caligula, Grant saw them as ordinary thugs — comparing them to various English monarchs, 1930s bohemians, wannabe artists and writers he had known, and of course hundreds of other monsters that frequent Tacitus, Suetonius, Petronius, and Plutarch.

He had lived a life in other words, liberated, not enslaved, by classics. I was also his gardener for a while. His wife (I recall her as Swedish and from a diplomatic family, or at least Scandinavian and thus interested in my background) would walk out while I pulled weeds in their rented house, asking me all sorts of questions about pruning, weed types, and frost. (I knew how to farm vines but nothing about English gardening).

Each week as I piled up brush in a pick-up, he would come out for 10 minutes to go on about how much he loved California, Americans, and Mediterranean life in general, with learned commentary about Tuscany’s wines, cheeses, breads, and greens. He corrected our seminar papers and scribbled notes all over them (not always normal for a senior professor), with a critical eye for prose and logic as much as footnoted sources. A good point earned: “That’s it!” A bad one, “ … but maybe see what our Syme says about this.”

He illustrated that the mastery of Latin and Greek fueled the ability to speak and write good English — and why the latter mattered as much or more than the former. I had never fully appreciated the relationship; but I saw it in him and therein soon sensed value even in courses that I had hated like Latin metrics and the manuscript traditions of Greek tragedians. He was as courteous and affable as Kitto was cold and curt. But I learned much from both.


Bernard Knox was a third great British classicist (who had become an American). Like Kitto and Grant, he had lived an entire life beyond Greek and Latin (Google him for the fascinating details). I never had him for a class. But he once reviewed a book I wrote called The Other Greeks, which led to correspondence, and I had dinner with him occasionally in Washington (once in his 90s). His Heroic Temper is the best discussion of Sophocles, and of Greek tragedy in general. Knox had a genius for seeing in Sophoclean characters — especially the less well-known losers like Ajax and Philoctetes — the sort of tragic heroes whom Americans are fond of (think Shane, the Searchers, The Magnificent Seven, or maybe even the more pathological The Wild Bunch). He saw majestic characters out of place in a modernizing world who would rather perish than change — but in a context where their sacrifice schools the lesser around them about what the old breed was about and what was being lost.

It was always better to keep silent and listen to Knox, not because he was loquacious (he was only gracious), but because such moments of free instruction were priceless — when does one hear first-hand accounts of the fighting in the Spanish Civil war or dropping into occupied Brittany? His son Macgregor Knox, also a combat veteran, is one of the great historians of 20th Century wars and popular political movements (cf. the classic Mussolini Unleashed). Knox, in short, was devoted to making America a more humane place, and brought charm and wit to every great thing he did.


Eugene Vanderpool was an American said-to-be rich aristocrat. I write “said-to-be” because when I met him he was already in his early 70s and looked as if he were homeless or indigent. When I joined his hikes through the Attic countryside in 1973-4, (but more frequently during another year at the American School of Classical Studies, Athens, 1978-9), he was already legendary in the tiny circles of American and European classicists. Vanderpool’s exact educational background (“just a BA?” was whispered) was murky. But his knowledge of the Greek countryside and language was almost frightening (“that new intersection project over there bulldozed an ancient walking path to Dekelea”). He had lived in Greece his entire life (interned by the Germans in World War II), and dressed, to be candid, in rags, most of his teeth gone through malnutrition during the war and not really replaced by dentures.

Vanderpool was the most reserved and kindest classical scholar I ever met. On long hikes (sometimes over 20 miles), he would walk beside the least accomplished of an often obsequious cohort of graduate students. Instead of the usual “so, what are you working on?” or “where are you from?” or “whom do you work with?”, it was always a different sort of question: “How many men do you think a few peripoloi could hold off from that redoubt up there?” “Do you have any idea who really built Aigosthena or why?” Then he almost seamlessly followed with a brief theory, replete with references to classical texts and topographical signposts. He was conservative politically, but a socialist in the sense of erudition: those most in need of it and without connections won his greater attention. He once yelled back to me: “Careful there that you don’t step on this Attic orchard, the first of the spring. Let’s give it a chance.”

All of these classicists shared one characteristic in common: they were beautiful prose stylists. I don’t think I ever read a more wonderfully crafted article than those (and there were not all that many) written by Eugene Vanderpool. By those who were overdressed, Vanderpool was worshiped for his informality. As an aristocrat, he was loved by those who were middle class. As a non-traditional academic, he was respected by those who listed dozens of their graduate degrees. A humble and modest man who was admired by the pompous and pedantic. A natural conservative, he lived and worked harmoniously with liberals. Why such universal devotion? His intellect and knowledge were overpowering. But he was also gentle and kind when most in his midst were often not, and somehow that proves to be all-powerful in a way that rudeness and narcissism are not.

My best memory of EV (as his friends, but not I who was not so close to him, called him) was his kneeling down to read an inscription that was on a courtyard doorstep in a house in modern Marathon. A Greek inside saw this toothless, elderly, man in raggedy coat and worn shoes and told him to skedaddle, as if Vanderpool were an itinerant bum leading beggars searching for morsels. What followed from Vanderpool in reply was mellifluous Modern Greek, spoken in soft tones with polite inquiries (that were really subtle lectures) about the plethora of 4th Century Greek inscriptions embedded into the stones of various houses and churches. The next thing I remember was the rude Greek smiling, running inside, and bringing out blocks of cheese for us. I think most of the Americans’ great epigraphical finds of the 1950s and 1960s came from tip-offs from Eugene Vanderpool, who apprised his students of various inscriptions that he had turned up but urged them to follow up on.

Eugene Vanderpool was beloved by those who knew him far better than I. But I learned from him how to look at the land — bridges, roads, towers, walls — and imagine the Greeks not with ink and papyrus but as men of action, farmers and hoplites, in a rough climate on poor soils. I suddenly envisioned them pruning and plowing in Laureion, the Oropos, and Acharnae, more like the rugged farmers with whom I had grown up with in vineyards and orchards than as the professors in elbow patches who had claimed them.

I have often been critical of classics (cf. Who Killed Homer?, which I co-authored). And indeed the profession can encourage pedantry, snobbishness, and escapism. But not always, given what rubs off from the beauty and power of the language and culture of the singular Greeks and Romans. I have met masterful undergraduate classics teachers (John Heath, Bruce Thornton, John P. Lynch, Mary-Kay Gamel, Colin Edmondson), and brilliant philologists (I think the best were the Berkeley classicists Leslie Threatte and W.K. Pritchett who both knew Greek as they did English), and genius dropouts from the profession who were more gifted than the stay-ins (Larry Woodlock and Frank DeRose). Some classicists were natural humanists (Ned Spofford) and civic models (Mark Edwards).

Classics, at its best, offers the historical, philological, and literary foundation and discipline to apply a critical method to every genera of learning — and living. What I remember from all these brief exposures to these great teachers was their otherness — an eccentricity to become Roman Republicans and Hellenists rather than the scholiasts who study them — that won grudging admiration even from their own orthodox peers. Maybe their success was in their desire to disseminate rather than show-off knowledge, to inform rather than to embarrass, to risk generalizing rather than retreating into safe esoterica. They could all teach, write, and talk — and in their own different ways were men of action as well as thought. I owe them a great deal — and I realize now that I have for a long time.


Related: Check out VDH’s video lecture series, including The Odyssey of Western Civilization and Victor Davis Hanson’s World War II, at the PJTV store.

Untrue Truisms in the War on Terror

January 18th, 2015 - 5:41 pm


In the current tensions with the Islamic World, pundits bandy about received wisdom that in fact is often ignorance. Here are a few examples.

1)  The solution of radical Islam must come from within Islam.

Perhaps it could. It would be nice to see the advice of General Sisi of Egypt take root among the Islamic street. It would have been nice had the Arab Spring resulted in constitutional republics from North Africa to Syria. It would be nice if an all-Muslim force took on and defeated the Islamic State. It would be nice if Iran suddenly stopped stonings and Saudi Arabia ceased public whippings. It would be nice if Muslims dropped the death penalty for apostates.

Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that any of these scenarios is soon likely. Nor is there much historical support for autocracies and totalitarian belief systems collapsing entirely from within. Hitler was popular enough among Germans until the disaster of Stalingrad. The Soviet Union only imploded under the pressures of the Cold War. Mussolini was a popular dictator — until Italy’s losses in World War II eroded his support. The Japanese emperor only was willing to end the rule of his militarists when Tokyo went up in flames and the U.S. threatened more Hiroshimas. Only the collapse of the Soviet Union and its bloc pulled the plug on the global terrorism of the 1980s.

Until Muslims themselves begin to sense unpleasantness from the crimes of radical Islam, there is little likelihood of Islamism eroding. Were France to deny visas to any citizens of a country it deemed a terrorist sponsor, or to deport French residents that support terrorism, while weeding out terrorist cells, then gradually Muslims in France would wish to disassociate themselves from the terrorists in their midst. If the U.S. adopted a policy that it would have no formal relations with countries that behead or stone, Islamists might take note.

2) The vast majority of Muslims renounce terror.

True, current polls attest that grassroots support for Islamic terror is eroding among Muslim nations, largely because of the violence in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere that is making life miserable for Muslims themselves.

But if even only 10% of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims favor radical Islamists, the resulting 160-million core of supporters is quite large enough to offer needed support. Again, by 1945 most Germans would have polled their opposition to Hitler. But that fact was largely meaningless given the absence of action against the Nazi hierarchy.

In truth, the majority of Muslims may oppose Muslim-inspired violence in their homelands, but will do so abroad only if radical Islam diminishes the influence and prestige of Muslims. If terrorism does not, and instead another charismatic bin Laden wins the sort of fear abroad and popularity at home (cf. his popularity ratings in some Muslim countries circa 2002), then it matters little that most Muslims themselves are not actual terrorists — any more than the fact that most Russians were not members of the Communist Party or Germans members of the Nazi Party. Likewise, the idea that Muslims are the greatest victims of Muslim-inspired terrorism is not ipso facto necessarily significant. Stalin killed far more Russians than did Hitler. That Germans suffered firsthand from the evils of National Socialism was no guarantee that they might act to stop it. Mao was the greatest killer of Chinese in history; but that fact hardly meant that Chinese  would rise up against him.

3) There is no military solution to radical Islam.

Yes and no. The truth is that military action is neutral: valuable when successful, and counter-productive when not. In 2003, there were few terrorists in Iraq. In 2006, there were lots. Then in 2011, there were few. Then, in 2014, there were lots again. The common denominator is not the presence or absence of U.S. troops, but the fact that in 2003 and 2011 the U.S. military enjoyed success and had either killed, routed, or awed Islamists; in 2006 and 2014 the U.S. military was considered either impotent or irrelevant. U.S. military force is counter-productive when used to little purpose and ineffectively. It is invaluable when it is focused and used successfully. If the U.S. bombing campaign against the Islamic State were overwhelming and devastating Islamic state territories, it would matter. Leaving a Western country to join the jihad in Syria would be considered synonymous with being vaporized, and the U.S. would find itself with far fewer enemies and far more allies.  Otherwise, sort of bombing, sort of not will have little positive effects, and may do more harm than good.

4) Reaching out to Islam reduces terrorism.

It can. No one wants to gratuitously incite Muslims. But the fact that Mediterranean food and Korans were available in Guantanamo did not mean that released terrorists were appreciative of that fact or that the world no longer considered the facility objectionable. Obama’s name, paternal lineage, apologies and euphemisms have neither raised U.S. popularity in the Middle East nor undermined the Islamic State.

The 2009 Obama Cairo speech went nowhere. Blaming the filmmaker Nakoula Nakoula for Benghazi did not make the Tsarnaev brothers reconsider their attack at the Boston Marathon. The use of “workplace violence” and declarations that the Muslim Brotherhood is secular or that jihad is a legitimate religious tenet has not reduced Islamic anger at the U.S.

The Kouachi brothers did not care much that under Obama Muslim outreach has become a promised top agenda at NASA. Backing off from a red line in Syria did not reassure the Middle East that the United States was not trigger-happy. Had Obama defiantly told the UN that Nakoula Nakoula had a perfect right to be obnoxious while on U.S. soil, or had the Tsarnaev family long ago been denied entry into the United States, then Islamic terrorists might at least have had more respect for their intended victims.  Current American euphemisms are considered by terrorists as proof of weakness and probably as provocative as would be unnecessary slanderous language.

The best policy is to speak softly and accurately, to carry a large stick, and to display little interest in what our enemies think of our own use of language. The lesson of Charlie Hebdo so far is that the French do not care that radical Islamists were offended and so plan to show the cartoons any way they please. If they stay the course, there will eventually be fewer attacks; if they back off, there will be more.

5) We need to listen to Muslim complaints.

No more than we do to any other group’s complaints. Greeks are not blowing people up over a divided Nicosia. Germans are not producing terrorists eager to reclaim East Prussia, after the mass ethnic cleansings of 1945. Muslims are not targeting Turks because Ottoman colonial rule in the Middle East was particularly brutal. Latin Americans are not slaughtering Spaniards for the excesses of Spanish imperial colonialism.

Christians are not offended that Jesus is Jesus and not referenced as the Messiah Jesus in the manner of the Prophet Mohammed. The Muslim community has been constructed in the West as a special entity deserving of politically correct sensitivity, in the manner of privileged groups on campus that continuously suffer from psychodramatic “micro-aggressions.” That Muslims abroad and in the West practice gender separation at religious services or are intolerant of homosexuals wins greater exemption from the Left than a Tea Party rally.  If the West were to treat satire, parody and caricature of Islam in the fashion of other religions, then eventually the terrorists would learn there is no advantage in killing those with whom they disagree. Once Westerners treat Islam as they do any other religion, then the Islamist provocateurs will be overwhelmed with perceived slights to the point that they are no longer slights. The Muslim world needs to learn reciprocity: that building a mosque at Ground Zero or in Florence, Italy, is no more or no less provocative than building a cathedral in Istanbul, Riyadh, or Teheran.

Also read: 

It’s a War of the Gods

Multicultural Suicide

January 11th, 2015 - 6:17 pm


Fueling the Western paralysis in dealing with radical Islam is the late 20th century doctrine of multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism is one of those buzzwords that does not mean what it should. The ancient and generic Western study of many cultures is not multiculturalism. Rather, the trendy term promotes non-Western cultures to a status equal with or superior to Western culture largely to fulfill contemporary political agendas.

On college campuses, multiculturalism not so much manifests itself in the worthy interest in Chinese literature, Persian history, or hieroglyphics, but rather has become more a therapeutic exercise of exaggerating Western sins while ignoring non-Western pathologies to attract those who see themselves in some way as not part of the dominant culture.

It is a deductive ideology that starts with a premise of Western fault and then makes evidence fit the paradigm. It is ironic that only Western culture is self-critical and since antiquity far more interested than other civilizations in empirically investigating the culture of the other.  It is no accident that Europeans and Americans take on their own racism, sexism, and tribalism in a way that is not true of China, Nigeria or Mexico. Parody, satire, and caricature are not Chinese, African, or Arab words.

A multicultural approach to the conquest of Mexico usually does not investigate the tragedy of the collision between 16th-century imperial Spain and the Aztec Empire. More often it renders the conquest as melodrama between a mostly noble indigenous people slaughtered by a mostly toxic European Christian culture, acting true to its imperialistic and colonialist traditions and values.

In other words, there is little attention given to Aztec imperialism, colonialism, slavery, human sacrifice, and cannibalism, but rather a great deal of emphasis on Aztec sophisticated time-reckoning, monumental building skills, and social stratification. To explain the miraculous defeat of the huge Mexican empire by a few rag-tag, greedy conquistadors, discussion would not entail the innate savagery of the Aztecs that drove neighboring indigenous tribes to ally themselves with Cortés. Much less would multiculturalism dare ask why the Aztecs did not deploy an expeditionary force to Barcelona, or outfit their soldiers with metal breastplates, harquebuses, and steel swords, or at least equip their defenders with artillery, crossbows, and mines.

For the multiculturalist, the sins of the non-West are mostly ignored or attributed to Western influence, while those of the West are peculiar to Western civilization. In terms of the challenge of radical Islam, multiculturalism manifests itself in the abstract with the notion that Islamists are simply the fundamentalist counterparts to any other religion. Islamic extremists are no different from Christian extremists, as the isolated examples of David Koresh or the Rev. Jim Jones are cited ad nauseam as the morally and numerically equivalent bookends to thousands of radical Islamic terrorist acts that plague the world each month. We are not to assess other religions by any absolute standard, given that such judgmentalism would inevitably be prejudiced by endemic Western privilege. There is nothing in the Sermon on the Mount that differs much from what is found in the Koran. And on and on and on.

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The Seductions of Appeasement

January 4th, 2015 - 6:52 pm

Before World War II appeasement was a good word, reflecting a supposedly wise policy of understanding an enemy’s predicaments. Sober Western democracies would grant tolerable concessions to aggressive dictators in Germany, Italy, and Japan to satiate their appetites for more. With such magnanimity everyone would avoid a nightmare like another Somme or Verdun.

Appeasement is always a seductive diplomacy because in the short term a bloody crisis is at least avoided. Hopes then rise that either tensions will cool as aggressors are pacified — or at least the latter won’t start trouble until the appeasers are long out of office. Appeasement is based on the theory that if you give one or two scraps of leftovers under the table to the dog at your feet, he will wag his tail and leave, grateful for such generosity, rather than to prove be even peskier for more.

Everyone associates appeasement with the Western democracies’ concessions to Adolf Hitler over the occupation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss with Austria, and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Such appeasement — widely praised at the time — was supposed to pacify Nazi Germany to end its chronic bullying, as even Hitler would concede it was foolish repeating the mess of 1918 for possession of slices from a far-away country. It worked for a year, until in late 1939 Hitler invaded Poland to begin World War II.

There are lots more recent examples of alluring appeasement. Secretary of State Dean Acheson once assured a tired postwar America that the Truman administration’s defense obligations did not extend to the Cold War powder keg on the Korean Peninsula. Relieved pundits praised such a realistic concession. Only a nut would want to bring back the B-29s and their former pilots or rev up obsolete Sherman tanks. Then a few months later North Korea invaded the South.

For years Britain felt that it had defused tensions over the Falkland Islands by appeasing various Argentine dictatorships and convinced them of the senselessness of fighting a stupid war over windswept rocks that a few thousands British subjects stubbornly clung to as English home soil. But by 1981 the British had even proposed withdrawing its only small warship from the islands as a gesture of reconciliation or of avoidance of unnecessary expense. The Argentines took note of the planned concession and the next year invaded.

In summer 1990 the American ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, tried politely to talk sense to Saddam Hussein about rising tensions with Kuwait. At one point she reportedly explained that “the United States did not take a stand on Arab-Arab conflicts, such as Iraq’s border disagreement with Kuwait.” Saddam shortly invaded Kuwait and two Gulf wars followed in the next two decades. Apparently he counted on U.S. indifference or a weak response to a far-away in-house Arab vendetta.

The problem with appeasement is threefold.

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Crime as Politics

December 28th, 2014 - 9:25 pm


In the last few days, the local Fresno community was outraged — or at least was reportedly to be so — at the vandalism of a local Islamic cultural center.

The police authorities almost immediately, and without waiting for the full evidence to be collected, declared the minor burglary and damage the apparent dividend of illiberal dark forces. The chief of police, without compelling evidence, and without explaining why a secular medical building was also trashed in the spree, rushed to hold a press conference. He declared the broken window and moderate trashing of the center’s interior, not just a “hate crime,” but in fact a “brazen hate crime.”

What next followed was Fresno’s comic version of what now is normal race and gender news. Almost immediately it was learned that there was a video of the suspected perpetrator in mediis rebus. Mr. Asif Mohammad Khan was a Muslim, with a record of mental disturbances, and had attended the center. He claimed that he had vandalized the buildings as part of payback to other center attendees who, he claimed, had bullied him — and reportedly was known to be an admirer of Osama bin Laden. The “brazen” hate crime and the atmosphere of intolerance vanished with the local morning fog. The FBI, of course, is still “investigating” a possible “hate crime.” But they too will quietly go away in short order.

But just a few days earlier, there was another Fresno crime captured on video, both violent and in theory fueled by racial animus, or at least more deserving of a FBI second look at such a possible catalyst. At a local municipal bus stop an elderly man with a walker bravely protested that a large youth was bullying a smaller teen. The video captures the thug in response yelling at the defender, then striking the man to the pavement. The latter hit his head on his walker and momentarily lost consciousness.

The attacker was a large, rather young African-American; the victim a 62-year-old white man. What followed was no police hectoring. No lectures about the safety of the city’s bus stops. No police chief warnings about interracial tensions. No brazen hate crime sermons about the hale and young attacking the elderly or disabled. Indeed the police initially did not even consider the attack a crime, but rather a “fall.” Only a chance bystander’s video of the incident led to a reinvestigation and the suspected perpetrator’s arrest.

Unlike the city’s failed effort to turn the Islamic center vandalism into a teachable moment, this really was a teachable moment, perhaps in two unfortunate regards. One, heroism is rendered foolish. So far no one in the city has stepped forward to congratulate a disabled senior’s heroic (and apparently successful) efforts to divert the bullying of teenager onto his own person. His only reward was to have been knocked out by the attacker, and the crime initially not considered a crime, but his injuries due supposedly to his own clumsiness.  Second, the disabled victim is lucky he was not armed. Had he pulled out a legal, concealed weapon when the bully approached him to attack, and fired in self-defense, we would have another Trayvon Martin hate crime, and charges that a climate of racial intolerance had led to the death of another unarmed African-American. In comparison to all that, a head injury is apparently preferable.

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Fantasyland, U.S.A.

December 22nd, 2014 - 4:53 pm

Mr. President, honest, I did not write 1984 as a how-to guide.

One way of reinventing reality is to warp the meaning of words. No president in memory has waged such a war on the English language as has Barack Obama — changing the meaning of vocabulary to hide what he fears might otherwise be unpopular.

Take executive orders. He brags that he does not issue them as commonly as his predecessors, but that is only true because Obama has now renamed some of his executive orders presidential “memoranda.” Add up both categories, and no president in the last half-century has so frequently bypassed Congress to unilaterally make new or ignore existing laws.

If Obama suddenly does not get his legislative way after losing the Congress, and boasts in defiance about his plans to act unilaterally (“I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone”), then why the need to hide that brag with linguistic gymnastics?

When Obama faced reelections, he pointed to increased deportations. But that claim hinged on changing the meaning of deportee. All of a sudden, illegal aliens who were stopped and turned away right at the border count as deportees. By changing the meaning of words, Obama believed that he could reinvent the reality of open borders into tough border enforcement.

But then again, when he found it useful to brag of open borders, suddenly he pointed to lower deportations, as the vocabulary once again readjusted its meaning.

On another front, Obama simply makes up names that imply the opposite of reality. The Affordable Care Act was hardly affordable. Obama knew that he could not save the American family the promised $2,500 in premiums, or reduce deductibles, or lower the deficit through health care reform. Instead, insurance policy premiums have gone up, plans and doctors have been dropped, and deductibles have soared. According to Jonathan Gruber, these known downsides of Obamacare had to be disguised from the supposedly “stupid” American people.

In the world of the Obama administration, Bowe Bergdahl, the deserter who was exchanged for four terrorists held at Guantanamo, did not, as National Security Advisor Susan Rice insisted, serve “with honor and distinction.” Instead, he abandoned his fellow soldiers at the front, and walked over to find the enemy Taliban. Traitor, like the word jihadist, has been excised from the Obama vocabulary.

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The Campus as California

December 14th, 2014 - 7:50 pm


Campuses are becoming the haunts of the very wealthy and the poor, with little regard for any in-between — sort of like California.

Let me explain. Lately lots of strange things have been in the news about college campuses — from the Rolling Stone’s mythography of the University of Virginia fraternities to Lena Dunham’s invented charges of rape against a supposed Oberlin College Republican to courses on “white privilege” to “hands up; don’t shoot” demonstrations protesting the police shooting of Michael Brown.

Tuition and Debt

But there are lots of campus topics that garner little publicity. Take tuition costs. Aggregate student debt is reaching $1 trillion — a result of an insidious relationship between federally guaranteed loans (many of which cost over 5% annually to service) and tuition spikes that habitually exceed the rate of inflation.

As a result, in a logical universe, there would be widespread student protests against the lack of transparency in university budgeting. There would anger at paying Hillary Clinton nearly a third of a million dollars for a boilerplate 30-minute chat. There would be grassroots complaints about the costly epidemic of new administrative positions and federal mandates that have nothing to do with in-class instruction. There would be inquiries about why teaching loads have declined as tuition skyrocketed.

Instead, there is mostly silence on campus. Why? Perhaps the answer reflects the fact that the campus bookends the trajectory of California — in that elite and wealthy students do not really care that much whether their combined tuition, room, and board tab goes from $55,000 a year to $60,000, given their parents’ ample resources. At the other end, poorer and often minority students are more likely to have access to college grants and scholarships. The working classes in between, who often lack familial capital and are not designated as disadvantaged in ethnic or class terms, more often pay the full bill. Do universities count on such dichotomies — that the most influential in terms of race, class, and gender issues are the most likely not to have to pay themselves the spiraling tab?

Faculty as Wal-Mart Greeters

Another dead issue is the presence of winners and losers on campus. The universities are divided into two classes: tenured and tenure-track professors versus part-time lecturers. At some public universities, the number of units taught by the part-time pool is exceeding 40% of all classes offered. The former grandees make three to five times more per class than the latter losers, and receive better benefits, life-time security, and far better working conditions (class selection and times, offices, release time, sabbaticals, etc.).

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Ripples of Ferguson

December 7th, 2014 - 8:25 pm

Police tape in front of smoldering remains of Prime Beauty Supply in Ferguson in the aftermath of riots. Photo taken on 11/25/14 by R. Gino Santa Maria /

There is some blame to go around in nearly all racial confrontations. Why the body of Michael Brown was left in the street for hours seems inexplicable. The apparent chokehold that contributed to the death of Eric Garner, with the benefit of video hindsight, does not seem to square with the de facto exoneration of the officer involved. In contrast, there has been absolutely no credible evidence that the unfortunate shooting of Michael Brown was not in self-defense.

Instead, most of the protests about Ferguson are based on untruth and the lessons are therefore surrealistic. Indeed, the reductionist messages of Ferguson from the street, the media, and the Justice Department seem to appear twofold. In hindsight, Officer Darren Wilson apparently made two postmodern mistakes. One, when he saw Michael Brown strangely walking down the middle of the street — and collated that behavior and his appearance with breaking information of a suspect on the loose who had just strong-armed a clerk and robbed the store — he stopped to investigate. Had Wilson simply waved and passed Brown by — and ignored the prior possible felony act and the misdemeanor that he was watching in progress — then Brown would never have had an opportunity to assault him. Brown would not have been shot. And the Ferguson chain of events would never have been jump-started on that particular day.

Some of the public may think that the lessons of Michael Brown — and Trayvon Martin — are that it is unwise to commit a crime and then assault an officer, or confront a stranger in the rain and slug him in the head and get into a tussle, given that such targets may be armed and may respond with deadly force. But I think critics would privately respond that in Al Sharpton’s America both cases instead advise to take the beating and do not dare use a firearm for self-protection from assault on the chance the attacker is unarmed. In retrospect, Zimmerman might have preferred to have been “whoop-assed,” or Wilson preferred being slugged than to become lifelong targeted pariahs.

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